Savage cuts planned by the Tory Government have been described as an unprecedented “ideological experiment” a North East council leader has warned.
Coun Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council, said George Osborne must trim the finances of Whitehall departments as local government in the North East is close to breaking point. The Chancellor has said a Conservative Government will look repeat the £20bn cuts to local government brought in by thr Coalition between 2010 and 2015, as he bids to eliminate the country’s deficit.
But Coun Henig said councils in the region are already sharing back office functions and further cuts would be crippling. Before the election, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles accused North councils of “scaremongering” over claims statutory services would be placed in jeopardy but Coun Henig believes local government can take no more.
He said: “These cuts are completely unprecedented in any Western European country. Nobody else has tried this. It is an experiment.
“We could be asked to cut another 40% or even more. On that basis, what will be left?”
He called on the new Cabinet to look to Whitehall’s Government departments because communities in the North would lose vital services otherwise.
“The issue here is not bureaucratic departmental spending, what these cuts are in reality are real services on the ground. What we are talking about is adult social care, litter collection, grass cutting, the state of our roads.”
Durham County Council has already agreed to share back office functions such as HR, IT and audit services with councils in North Tyneside and Northumberland.
He said, however, such moves raise questions about who councils serve.
“There is a democratic accountability issue,” he said. “What are you then voting for if a council outsources their services? What does that mean for democratic accountability when councils can’t afford to pay for services?
“This is an ideological experiment. Nobody else, either in Britain or any equivalent European country like Germany or France, has tried this.
“It is a big jump into the unknown and it will lead to a crumbling infrastructure and we will see a real impact on the ground in a big way. There is no two ways about it.”
He called on the Chancellor to consider North voters when drawing up spending plans.
He said: “There have already been huge cuts to local authorities while Whitehall has remained the same and that can’t go on.
“If there is to be more austerity then the place to start is Whitehall. We have been asked to share service while Government departments are still operating in silos.
“Those individual Government departments are not elected and there is not an accountability issue for them.
“We are elected to run Durham or Northumberland. There are no elections to populate Government departments with civil servants. Why don’t they bring Government departments together.”
When asked about further cuts to local government during the election campaign, Eric Pickles said: “The overwhelming amount of money comes from the North because the South doesn’t get much money.
“If you look back to 2010, you will get people saying exactly the same things [about frontline services] and five years later satisfaction with councils has gone up.
“There is plenty of money to be made through better procurement. There is plenty of money to be made through partnership working and sharing with neighbouring officers.”